I admit that sometimes I’m a little slow. Not slow in the sense that the children in New Jersey are slow (at least according to this street sign, which may have been the highlight of my final week in the US.) But slow in a temporal sense. Unrushed. Plodding. Leaden-footed. Which is why tonight I’m writing my observations of New Orleans, despite having left there some three weeks ago. I imagine little has changed over the time though…
In New Orleans, the days are thick and humid with those flat, grey deceptive skies which make you think it’s not that hot until you realise you’re lathered in sweat 5 metres from your doorstep at 9am. Nights are balmy with air laden with the fragrance of gardenias and jasmine.
The defining character of the city is a type of battered, dilapidated charm. If it were a person, it would be a nattily-dressed tubercular trumpet-player with a diamond in his tooth swearing that you’re the very finest woman he’s ever damn laid eyes on, then asking if you can lend him $5. You’d give it to him too.
In New Orleans, “Ma’am” and “baby” are equally polite forms of address. This is in marked contrast to Australia, where the only situations in which you would call a stranger “baby” would be if you were a male chauvinist pig or were soliciting on the street.
Houses are narrow and bony-shouldered; painted lavender, candy pink, baby blue, buttercup, turquoise, mint green, terracotta. Presumably there is some type of civic law against monochrome. Even the freshly painted houses have a fetching air of shabbiness, offset by gaudy touches of flamboyance and theatricality. Many of them have gargoyles or gilt lions out the front, jaws bared, claws unfurled, snarling vampishly at passers-by. Each day I walk by a mansion with an elaborate stucco fountain filled with a fleet of canary-yellow rubber ducks: ducks in sunglasses, tuxedos, Hawaiian shirts – naked ducks – bobbing cocky and gay amongst the crisp green pondweed.
Nature is ornamented as well. In the pallid sunlight, skeins of bright, metallic beads glint among the treetops, flung from the floats during carnival and left hanging from the branches like adders. The state flower of Louisiana is the magnolia, and these too have a surreal, larger-than-life quality – possibly because they are about four times as large as those back home. Huge and creamy, they float like cake boxes half ajar, lodged in the branches of a tree. On sultry days, they unleash a lush, blowsy scent, conjuring up images of women in crinolines, laughing gaily with white necks bared as they sip mint juleps on the porch. And then there are the gnarled cypresses and oaks with their sheaths of Spanish moss, like shawls draped around the shoulders of faded ballerinas. There’s something about them – their spectral, gothic charm – which captivates me, and again seems quintessentially New Orleans, because if ever there was a city where life and death coexist comfortably side by side, then this would be it.
Little wonder then, that in New Orleans they bury above ground. I am told this piece of information by a surprising number and variety of people, including tour guides, bartenders, people begging for money and morning dog walkers. It seems to be a point of pride with them. The official reason for this tradition is that because the earth is so soft and muddy, if you attempted to inter a coffin in it, come a few days, it would just push it right back up again. (Notice how I’ve slipped inevitably into a kind of Louisiana cadence there?) I guess it makes things easier for the vampires too.
I also learn that, like the Victorians, 19th century Creoles were tremendously concerned about being buried alive, hence the common practice of tying a length of rope attached to a bell to either the toe or index finger of a corpse. If one were to find themselves the unfortunate victim of live burial, then, summoning a watchman (employed for that express purpose, somewhat disturbingly) was a relatively simple task. Interestingly, this is where the phrase “saved by the bell” originated.
Belief in voodoo, zombies and ghosts is also commonplace in New Orleans – or is at least purported to be. On a whim, I visit the Voodoo Museum, a series of narrow, poky parlours bathed in a swampy reddish light presumably meant to create a hellish, subterranean atmosphere yet overall more suggestive of a Whitechapel brothel. The rooms are occupied by alligator and skull-headed effigies, many of whom wear top hats and waistcoats, lending them a general air of dapperness, at odds with their toothy rictuses and bulging eyeballs. At their feet lie sacred piles of cigarettes, stale chocolate bars, lipsticks, feathers, rhinestones– cornucopias of tack. There is a hollow tree stump where you can write a wish on a piece of paper, place it within and knock nine times. (I’m not sure what happens if you lose count – nine seems an ambitious number to me.) Out front there is a gift shop selling voodoo dolls, love potions, gris-gris and kitchenware featuring famous voodoo queens. I don’t buy anything, because I have enough coasters already and there’s no-one I really want to curse at that particular point in time. Predictably, I think of a good three or four people as soon as I get home.